While the symbolic act of signing a voluntary environmental commitment is important, action toward honoring it is more meaningful.
As the reality of our climate crises becomes more stark, businesses, educational institutions, non-profits, and others who own or are planning new buildings are under increasing pressure to take action. Architectural firms and others who design buildings must be prepared to help them. Voluntary environmental commitments have become popular ways for architectural, design, and engineering firms to signal concern and promise action. However, data shows that only a small percentage of firms that have signed onto voluntary environmental commitments have achieved the stated emissions reductions and mitigation goals. In the spirit of shared commitment, this article describes some of the ways that FXCollaborative is trying to hold itself accountable to its environmental commitments and improve the impact of its work.
The American Institute of Architect’s AIA 2030 Commitment and A&D Materials Pledge are two prominent commitments. Recently, parallel efforts have arisen among structural engineers through the SE 2050 Challenge, system engineers with the MEP 2040 Challenge, and the Lighting Materials Pledge for lighting designers. These and other commitments have enabled many firms to join together to amplify climate urgency and rally around common mitigation targets.
Focusing on the AIA 2030 Commitment, architects understand that 40 percent of energy in the United States is consumed by buildings, and that our work plays a key role in reducing harmful emissions. The commitment’s main goal is to drastically reduce the predicted energy use intensity of new building designs to zero (with an allotment of renewable energy) by 2030. It is widely adopted among architectural firms; according to the AIA it has more than 1,000 signatories representing more than 40 percent of architectural firms including most large firms. As of 2020 (the last year of available data), only 378 signatories reported data, and the average reduction in pEUI was 51 percent, far from the mark. Only 15 companies met that year’s interim target of an 80 percent reduction in pEUI. This lack of progress shows that while the symbolic act of signing a voluntary commitment is important, action toward honoring it is more meaningful.
FXCollaborative joined the AIA 2030 Commitment in 2010 and the A&D Materials Pledge in 2021, and we have been working diligently to hold ourselves accountable to both through the following:
- A plan for action. Last year we wrote a Sustainability Action Plan, which is central to all of our sustainability efforts and directly supports our commitments. It is an honest look at the status of sustainability at our office, covering design as well as internal operations. Part of the power of the document was in researching and conceiving it in the first place. We used the opportunity to engage many colleagues from all roles, disciplines, and levels to determine what we do well, where we need improvement, and how we can make progress. The result is a very clear and concise set of priorities that give us clarity about how to improve. We published the plan publicly on our website to encourage transparency and as a resource that other architecture firms may benefit from as an example.
Internal processes. To foreground sustainability in our design work, we instituted a standard set of internal processes every project must follow. First, a “2030 Memo” is issued to each design team outlining the 2030 Commitment pEUI baseline and target for that specific project. Teams are asked to share the memo with clients and consultants to educate them about the commitment and to advocate for strong goals as well as consultants who have made similar commitments. Early in each project, a series of sustainability focused work sessions are held internally with clients and consultant teams to make sure all involved are knowledgeable about the relevant environmental context, and engaged in discussion of opportunities, strategies, and resources.
Teams are required to use the AIA Framework for Design Excellence, which puts sustainability in the context of design and is flexible enough to be used by all projects while covering sustainability comprehensively. AIA award submissions require information about how projects address the framework, which incentivizes teams to keep its themes in mind. Additionally, each team is asked to produce a “sustainability diagram” to consolidate highlights into a clear graphic format. In later design phases, levels of sustainability discussion vary relative to each project, but periodic internal check-ins and quality assurance reviews maintain attention throughout.
- Helpful resources. To set up design teams for success, we developed a number of internal resources. First, in-house environmental analyses help design teams investigate important environmental aspects of a project. We trained a group of colleagues to quickly review site climates, the impact of the sun on building forms, shading from buildings, interior daylight, glare potential, and other parameters as part of the design process. Other resources include standard starting points for building assemblies and materials. After designing high performance building envelopes for many years, we collected the best examples into an easy-to-use document and digital library. Similarly, baseline green specification guidance is a common starting point, and we are developing a materials library with vetted products for teams to easily choose from healthy, low carbon, environmentally responsible, and ethically sourced options. Colleagues are also made aware of resources related to climate justice, resiliency, and adaptation to raise our level of awareness and ability to proactively raise those topics to clients.
- Advocacy. Internally, many sustainability initiatives embody the change we seek. Colleagues are required to gain a sustainability certification within six months of employment. Support is provided in the form of study materials, financial assistance, and internal education. An active Team Green instigates all sorts of research, development, and internal policy pursuits. And we participate in advocacy efforts through participation in the AIA NY Committee on the Environment and other avenues. For example, our recent Resource Library Manifesto (see Ann Rolland’s recent article in The Zweig Letter) joins industry efforts to push manufacturers to make more sustainable materials.
- Walking the walk. We’re putting our money where our mouth is; FXCollaborative has been a carbon neutral company since 2008. We calculate our impact on the environment and purchase renewable energy certificates to offset our emissions and support a net-zero future with renewable energy. Our new office at 1 Willoughby Square, was an opportunity to lead by example and showcase how we would like to design all our projects. The result is the first LEED v4 Platinum Commercial Interior in New York City, and the highest scoring such project in the country. The space features a number of energy efficiency, water conservation, healthy building, active design, and other sustainability measures.
We are all learning how to make our businesses, products, and services more responsive to the new climate reality. No organization has all the answers, so sharing what we try and learn is key to collective progress. We hope this article contributes by amplifying the urgency of climate action and raising awareness of ways architectural firms can take action.
Dan Piselli, AIA, LEED AP, CPHD, is director of sustainability and a senior associate at FXCollaborative. Contact him at email@example.com.